Monthly Archives: January 2007
How do we define pornography? John Cameron Mitchell (creator of Hedwig and the Angry Inch) wrote and directed an examination on human relationships that also employs hardcore sex. Yes, the actors are really having sex and we really see, among other things, a man fellate himself to climax. There’s hetero sex, homo sex, masturbation, and, in small flashes, a whole sweaty orgy of people of all shapes, sizes, colors, and tastes. This movie celebrates the sheer possibilities and enjoyment of sex. Mitchell isn’t the first serious filmmaker to show people really doing it, and the movie shows sex in a realistic fashion that is rarely seen, with all the humor, playfulness, and stumbles that can arise. It?s refreshing and a great window into the depths of human interaction. That’s the deal: everyone in this film is reaching out to feel something. The script mostly follows the pursuit of a sex therapist who has never had an orgasm. The sex will get the headlines but it’s the quiet reflections on human connection that really sneaks up on you and can hit hard. The movie doesn’t cover every facet with ease, like a stalker-esque character, and some of the acting is a bit amateurish; however, it’s a daring film that has a disarming sweetness to it and an open-hearted message that’s rather romantic after all. And no, it’s not porn.
Nate?s Grade: B
Director Todd Field (In the Bedroom) and author Tom Perotta (Election) have created the most incisive, mordant, and entertaining peek into suburban life since 1999’s American Beauty. You really feel the carnal yearning that Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson have as they inch their way to an affair. I’ve never felt the raw appeal of an affair perhaps like this before. Even more amazing, the film explores an entire neighborhood of characters and breathes life into them. Little Children feels like a great novel, with a scalpel-sharp narrator offering glimpses into the inner workings of these people. You get a great sense of worth in the film and it’s easy to fall under its spell. Little Children is a wonderful movie that looks at the complexities of people without judgment but with plenty of sly humor. It’s a fine work of satire and sensuality, and Winslet is becoming so good at delivering powerful performances that she’s being taken for granted as perhaps the best actress of her generation.
Nate?s Grade: A
Filmmaker Kirby Dick is a ballsy man. First, he crafts a rousing journalistic expose on the un-impartial and arcane practices of the Motion Picture Association of America ratings board. Then, and this is genius, he submits his own muckraking documentary to that same board for a rating. Dick’s potent film is ambitious and tries to do too much, touching every topic related to the MPAA it can think of; it practically steamrolls over the ideas of piracy and the fact that a national ratings board eliminates the all-too-likelihood of arbitrary local ratings systems. But Dick squares the MPAA in his sights and his aim is deadly. This is an organization that says it is voluntary and has no editorial control over how movies are made. But how voluntary is it when the NC-17 rating is treated as a commercial kiss of death, where newspapers won’t run ads, video stores won?t carry the film, and advertising is strictly limited?
Dick makes brilliant note of the different hypocrisies of the ratings systems. Sex is graded far more harshly than wanton violence, and what’s even worse is homosexual sex. Dick juxtaposes film clips side-by-side, one with heterosexual sex where the film received an R-rating, and the other with homosexual sex where the film received an NC-17 rating. The scenes are nearly identical except for the gender of the people involved. Also, sexual thrusting also seems to get the MPAA’s goat. An animated sequence detailing what is and isn’t allowed in a film per rating is hilarious (you did know you got one F-bomb for a PG-13 as long as it is not in reference to sex, right?). There’s a lot of filmmakers in here to share their MPAA horror stories of what was and wasn’t accountable for taste and some of it is baffling; Hilary Swank wiping her mouth after going down, off camera, on a girl is the difference between R and NC-17. The MPAA also has a disturbing habit of grading harshly when it comes to films that show women receiving pleasure through sexual intercourse.
The MPAA is also the only ratings board where its members are kept in secret in an effort, they say, to thwart coercion. Dick hires a private eye, who happens to be a lesbian no less, and together they hunt down the raters and reveal to the public for the first time who these arbitrators of taste really are. MPAA mastermind Jack Valenti said the raters would be comprised of normal parents; well Dick’s film exposes that many on the board have adult children, and some don’t have any kids at all. Plus there are two members of the clergy on this board in an “advisory” function. The film isn’t mean-spirited but is very angry but it’s an anger that Dick makes sure you understand and relate to. The most astonishing aspect of this documentary is that the MPAA actually listened and is loosening certain rules, allowing filmmakers to cite precedence when arguing for or against their ruling (“Hey, you can stab a guy in an ear with a penis in Scary Movie but we can?t have two women kiss?”). This is a must-see for film fanatics and those curious how the industry ceded power to a small group of middle-aged homeowners.
Nate?s Grade: B+
It’s niiiiiiice. It seems like Napoleon Dynamite impressions are being replaced by Borat impression, and this can only be for the better. I say this without a hint of sarcasm — Sacha Baron Cohen should have been nominated for Best Actor. He is simply brilliant as he stays in character through every second of a road trip through America, running across all sorts of people and turning them into unwitting co-writers. Cohen’s film succeeds both as a pee-your-pants funny outrageous crude comedy but also as a socio-political examination on bigotry and tolerance in America. What makes so Borat so loveable is how innocent Cohen makes him seem even when he’s spouting racist, sexist, inflammatory ignorance. It’s amazing that people will buy his whopping tales of life in Kazakhstan because we as a nation have a willful ignorance about world culture. The scripted bits stand out like a conclusion with Pamela Anderson, but it’s still amazing they worked out as cohesive a story as they did for this movie. Borat is the best comedy of the year, hairy naked man wrestling and all.
Nate?s Grade: B+
Ryan Gosling gives a devastating performance as an inner city schoolteacher addicted to crack. This is a thoughtful look at friendship and vice as Gosling befriends one of his female students and becomes something of a mentor, trying to steer her in a good direction. The film is refreshing because of how awkward and authentic it is, and it does not pull punches; there are no happy endings or storylines wrapped with bows. The biggest drawback from this powerful film is that it’s too insular and doesn’t get much of an outside perspective. Scenes have a tendency to drag, but the movie is set ablaze by the troubled yet hopeful turn by Gosling, already firmly established as the most astonishing talent of his age. Who ever would have guessed a former Mousekateer would be our next Marlon Brando?
Nate’s Grade: B+
Pedophilia is all the rage these days in the media spotlight, though people are misusing the term most of the time. Pedophilia denotes an attraction to pre-pubescent kids, not, say, a 16 year-old girl. But anyway, this is a nasty little firecracker of a film that pushes the audience into increasingly uncomfortable moral quagmires. I enjoyed being made uncomfortable, being forced to question who was in the right, when the truth of the matter is neither party, the accused pedophile or the vengeful 14 year-old girl, is totally justified in their actions. Ellen Page gives a shocking and intense performance, one of the year’s biggest surprises. She’s a skinny coil of rage, deception, and questionable ethics. Most of the film is just watching two actors argue back and forth, each vying for dominance, and the results are pretty absorbing. The movie trips up late by spelling things out when it should have remained a nagging mystery. Sure it’s not entirely believable but damn if it doesn’t put you into a tight spot.
Nate’s Grade: B+
The answer should be pretty obvious. However, this is not a slapped together bundle of liberal outrage. This is a lucid and refined argument that car companies, oil companies, and other interests essentially turned back the clock on invention and progress, something that is deeply upsetting. The market for an electric car was here and continues to be here, and this film shows that the car companies would rather destroy every electric car and pretend it never existed. This documentary relies on a lot of talking heads, many in the auto industry or former electric car drivers, but the information is easy to grasp and does not overwhelm the viewer. All I can say is, thank God for the Japanese. When the electric cars were up and zooming, car companies proposed their own cleaner-air alternative, the hydrogen car, something we’re told is never going to happen. But the Japanese were so scared by the amount of talk American car companies made that they themselves developed a hybrid car while their American competitors were just twiddling their thumbs idly. Well done, nation of the rising sun.
Nate’s Grade: B
Every year Pastor Becky holds a camp in North Dakota called “Kids on Fire.” It isn’t your typical summer camp where they weave baskets or go swimming. This is a Christian-based camp with one objective: to brainwash impressionable children. Jesus Camp is nothing short of startling and eye opening. These people mean well, I hope, but what we’re witnessing is nothing short of child abuse. I was watching these kids’ childhoods vanish right before my eyes as grown-ups recruit them to be foot soldiers in the army of God. These kids are shoveled dogma to the point that they become robots, and it’s because kids are so impressionable that the adults know it will stick. I defy anyone not to die a little when they hear a kid say he was “saved” at age five because he wanted more out of life. FIVE! Another little girl, around 10, uneasily admits she finds herself dancing “for the flesh” at times instead of for the Lord.
The most heartbreaking moment of the film is when we see one kid share his faith. He so badly wants a religious experience, to feel the touch of God in his life, but he regrets that doubt keeps setting in and life has a habit of making faith a hard commodity to grasp. All around him are kids writhing on the ground, bleating in tongues, weeping because they feel God inside them, and here?s this poor kid dealing with the same struggles that most adults go through when it comes to religion and spirituality. There’s a moment when he?s even rocking back and forth with his hands open, tears down his face, desperately wanting what the others seem to so easily be channeling. My goodness, it’s hard to watch. You just want to hug the kid.
Where things get really scary is when the people supporting the camp blur the line between religion and politics. His mother home schools Levi, and there’s a moment where he’s reading his textbook and his mother says, “Did you get to the part where they say science hasn’t proven anything?” His mother then dissects global warming as myth and propaganda. What does the Bible have to do with global warming? Absolutely nothing, but it’s a conservative Republican talking point to question the validity of science and climate change. And that’s when the realization dawns: this camp isn’t creating soldiers for God but a broader voting base for the Republican Party. That’s why they debunk global warming, that’s why they ignore science, that’s why they learn about aborted fetuses, and that’s why they’re reminded of the “murder” of Terri Schiavo. I’m sorry but it is just entirely inappropriate to berate 6 and 7-year-old kids about abortion practices. One camp leader instructs the kids to smash a cup representing “government” and to pray for righteous Supreme Court nominees. These items have nothing to do with the actual Christian religion but they sure have a lot to do with how the Republican Party courts the religious vote. At one point Pastor Becky dredges up a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush and the kids are instructed to kiss it and bless him. Excuse me madam pastor, isn’t that idol worship?
The idea is that taking away a child’s reason and ability to think is in their best interest. I do not subscribe to the theory that ignorance is a defense against the world. But that’s exactly what these children are being forced to become — ignorant. They will become true believers and there’s no debate with a true believer, because they know they’re right no matter what evidence is set before them. Personally I don’t understand why science and religion have to be butting forces that cancel each other out, but that’s because I reason my beliefs with the realities of the observable world. These kids will never have that chance.
But what these people are doing is fear mongering and preying on a child?s instinct to belong. Pastor Becky condemns Harry Potter: “[He’s] an evil warlock and in biblical times he would have been burned!” She breaks down these kids and then rebuilds them just like the military. However, I don’t think the army of God needs wee ones knocking on doors to say the Earth is 6000 years old and fossils were just something the Jews hid as a hoax (this is a joke, but who knows what these kids could be led to think). One girl walks up to a group of older black men and asks if they know where they’re going when they die. “Heaven,” they simply reply. She questions if they’re sure and then leaves, and as she walks across the street she quietly tells her friends, “I think they were Muslim.” Sigh.
The movie also has the best unintentionally hilarious moment of 2006. Pastor Ted Haggard is interviewed in depth and we see him preach to a congregation of hundreds. He says that as long as evangelicals vote, then no one can topple them. Months after the theatrical release of Jesus Camp, and a week before the 2006 midterm elections, a gay prostitute came forward confessing that Haggard had paid for sex on numerous occasions and even used meth. Haggard released a statement saying he had a lot of demons that made him do vile acts. In Jesus Camp, we see Haggard looking directly into the camera where he speaks as his conscience, saying, “I know what you did. I’m going to tell your wife.” The transparency is amazing and quite funny.
From a technical point of view, Jesus Camp doesn’t have a lot going for it. The music is pretty keen and the editing has a nice narrative to it, framed by a pastor on talk radio denouncing tactics and proselytizing. Mostly the filmmakers have such a harrowing scene that they just point their cameras and let their subjects be. There’s not a lot of commentary from their part, instead they choose to convince their audience through the power of what they see. The documentary is even-handed and could be commended by both sides of the political aisle. Some will be infuriated while others will be stimulated.
Jesus Camp is the scariest movie I’ve seen all year and also one of the saddest. Children should be allowed to be children and enjoy the time they have before the world gets complicated. They are not to be used as pawns in someone?s attempt to steady their political status quo. I know people mean well, but this isn’t helping. Pastor Becky is in awe at the Muslims who are willing to die for their cause. She wants the exact same thing from a Christian point of view. And that’s where she fails. You don’t fight fundamentalism with fundamentalism. You create a dialogue and try to reason, but how can you reason when all you know is that you’re right at all costs and everyone else is wrong? Jesus Camp did have a positive impact. Pastor Becky has decided to close the camp. I feel it may be a small victory though. There will be plenty more that pop up in her wake. These people want to “take back America.” Does that mean for the rest of us that our country is being taken away?
Nate’s Grade: B+
Catch and Release may in fact have the most bizarre meet-cute in movie history. Gray (Jennifer Garner) is mourning the loss of Grady, the man that would have been her husband. She seeks a refuge from all the well-wishers and lies down in a bathtub with the shower curtain drawn. Fritz (Timothy Olyphant), one of the deceased’s best friends, enters the room with a female caterer. They position themselves against a wall and engage in some opportune sex. Gray is trapped and forced to hear the whole thing. The caterer keeps screaming, “Sock it to me” in increasing orgiastic pleasure. I was waiting for some more 1950s hipster dirty talk, like, “Lay it in me, Daddy-O.” Eventually the sex comes to an end and Fritz lights up a post-coital cigarette. But then Gray flings the shower curtain back. Aha! It’s boy meets girl in the most preposterous fashion, but that’s Catch and Release for you, a romantic comedy with enough to be different but still too limited to become anything other than a lukewarm date movie.
Now absent one less earner, Gray is forced to move into a house occupied by Sam (Kevin Smith) and Dennis (Sam Jaeger). They were friends of Gray’s ex as well. Then life proceeds to give Gray a series of curve balls. She discovers that her dead fiancé had over a million dollars in the bank and an 8-year-old son with another woman (Juliet Lewis), a flighty New Age massage therapist. Grady might not have been the same man Gray thought she was set to have and to hold (her married name would have been Gray Grady?).
Things get off to an interesting start. The proposed wedding party has been transformed into a wake. Then as she is trying to cope with loss and put the pieces of her life together she’s further undone by revelation after revelation of secrets her ex kept from her. That’s pretty dark for a usual airy genre but also a pretty interesting setup for something different. Catch and Release flirts with being unconventional but then is on a fairly predictable trajectory once its promise settles down and completely dissolves.
Thankfully, despite all the doom and gloom there isn’t any grating sense of whininess. The perspective feels knowing and in search of wisdom through life’s unexpected calamities. Writer/director Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich, Ever After) has a worthy adult sensibility that helps make the film feel a bit more credible and less like an inane melodrama. Catch and Release feels less pre-programmed and unlike most paint-by-numbers romantic comedies, and yet it still wears the weight of its genre around its neck and can never take a step forward without taking two backwards. There’s ample opportunity for a romantic comedy that begins at the literal end of a relationship, with the widow discovering more than she ever knew about her dearly departed (a rom-com version of The Constant Gardener? Call me, Hollywood). However, the movie seems too content to walk the same beaten path many have before it. It may be nothing more than a throwaway genre movie but it got my hopes up that it could have been something more. I feel spurned and betrayed, somewhat like Gray must have felt.
Catch and Release is a hit-and-miss date movie that can never really reel in what it wants to do. The film has some somewhat inspired moments but is also dominated by romantic comedy clichés and sitcom generalizations when it comes to its characters and setting. Of course the nice guy has had a lifelong crush on Gray. Of course the fat guy is also funny and rude. And of course we’re going to house all of these people under one roof so it will produce plenty of Gray-Fritz interactions that will lead to their eventual coupling. Plus, who could forget the classic eleventh hour misunderstanding followed by the pursuit that ends in a glib line like, “What took you so long?” The movie seems to be trying too hard to make Fritz seem like a suitable replacement when we never really know much about him. He’s kind of sleazy and he knows it, but when exactly does he become likeably sleazy? Their union feels forced and unrealistic, even by romantic comedy standards. It also feels like Grant named Garner’s character Gray just so she could include this passage:
Gray: “What’s your favorite color?”
Catch and Release is mostly a grab bag of other romantic comedies. It doesn’t even know what to do with the fly fishing metaphor it valiantly tries to lift into some deeper meaning. I don’t get it myself. Gray says that her dead ex was always a “catch and release” man; does this mean he never had the heart to finish off his prey, or that he was too sympathetic with struggling creatures? It doesn’t matter what the metaphor attempts are because it allows for the cast to put on their rubber boots and wade in the cool waters of predictability. At least only one character works in the usual romantic comedy job pool (publishing, advertising, theater). Though Sam does come up with quotes for boxes.
Garner is such a winning actress but still finding her stride. She’s being positioned to fill the void of Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts, which is fine, but when I see her more as a modern Sigourney Weaver, someone who can excel in light comedy but also kick your ass when the time came. Gray’s world goes into upheaval and Garner is up to the task balancing emotion and wry life observations, but too often there’s little else for her to do but pout or crinkle her eyebrows. Her cheekbones certainly get quite a workout in Catch and Release but I wouldn’t exactly call that dramatic acting. I have been a fan of Olyphant since 1999’s Go. He’s always had a scary sexiness to him, and works best playing assholes you just can’t help but love. Grant totally drops the ball on his character. Fritz is behind the eight ball early and never really recovers when it comes to audience loyalty. Olyphant is also given a problematic shaggy haircut that manages to neutralize his natural alluring danger and still make him seem aloof. His role is a stock role and nothing more.
Thank God for Kevin Smith. Grant wisely chose Silent Bob as her comic relief and Smith has such natural laid back charm and great timing that he should get more acting gigs full time. His presence is deeply missed when he steps offstage and the film returns back to its familiar roots. I don?t know why Grant has Sam eating or making food, or talking about eating in almost every scene. After the fourth scene in a row where Sam has a chicken leg in his fist, it gets tiresome, like she defined a character by hunger. Smith has the best scenes and the best chemistry, whether it’s with Garner, Lewis, or a little kid. I think someone should cast Kevin Smith as the lead of a romantic comedy. Now that’s an unconventional date movie I’d pay to see.
Catch and Release has some glimmers of promise before succumbing to the weight of the romantic comedy genre. The movie just cannot get past mounting clichés and shallow characters, plus some fairly contrived situations like the bizarre meet-cute. Garner and her dimples will survive to enchant another day. At the end of the day, Catch and Release is just like any other romantic comedy movie, and there’s plenty more of those in the sea.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Men in drag is one of the truest tenets of comedy. Billy Wilder proved it, Dustin Hoffman proved it, even Robin Williams proved it. Eddie Murphy found career resurgence when he put on a fat suit for 1996’s The Nutty Professor. I think Martin Lawrence thought, why not combine them both? Thus was the unholy birth of 2000’s Big Momma’s House, where Lawrence goes undercover for the FBI as a morbidly obese older woman. If that doesn’t spell comedy then what will. Forgotten amidst the fat jokes and flatulence is the fact that Oscar-nominated Paul Giamatti was Lawrence’s beleaguered co-star.
Now, I myself had never seen the first trip to Big Momma’s House but in order to give a rounder opinion of the year 2006 in film, I felt it was my duty to see its sequel. For fun I felt a traditional review would do a disservice to the fine craftsmanship and invigorating cinema I was about to witness, so I decided to create a rundown of my viewing thoughts by the minute. Here, ladies and gents, is Big Momma’s House 2. Beware plot spoilers below.
04: Apparently Mrs. Big Momma (Gabriel Union) has a bun in the oven. Or an egg in the nest. She has the most unrealistic looking pregnancy ever. It’s almost like a cone.
10: Lawrence climbs back into the fat suit to go undercover as a nanny to stop computer hackers from dismantling the secrets of national security and selling them to terrorists. That’s right, it’s Big Momma vs. terrorism.
11: Also, apparently the rich do not do background checks on those in charge of watching their children. Has Dateline taught us nothing?
18: Here are the kids: dumb kid, cheerleader wannabe, and Hot Topic rocker chick (the daughter in 40 Year-Old Virgin that wanted to have sex).
22: Wife discovers Lawrence’s secret supply of XXXXXXXXL panties. Does she not know of Big Momma?
26: Nope. No she doesn’t, as she mentions her concern to a gal pal. “A woman this big wearing a thong? That can’t be comfortable.” Cue cut to Big Momma lamenting her thong. Why is Lawrence even wearing a thong? What are the benefits of dressing as a large woman and also wearing a thong?
32: Even the FBI, who put Big Momma into the field years ago, doesn’t even know Big Momma is not real. No wonder we have intelligence failures. Send Big Momma to fix Iraq. That’s a sequel I’d be interested in.
34: What school plays “Baby Got Back” for a gym dance class? Big Momma shows the uncoordinated cheerleader wannabe how to dance. The gym leaders ask for Big Momma to lead them to glory. Maybe he/she can also sink the winning last-second shot for the high school basketball championship too.
40: 19-year-old Chad is lurking in the bushes for the 15-year-old Hot Topic girl. Nothing spells romantic like “lurking” and “interested in dating a 15-year-old.” Again, did Dateline teach us nothing?
46: The FBI finally realizes Big Momma is neither. The FBI earns a lollipop.
48: Lawrence decides to actually do housework for his nanny job but he decides to do it outside of his Big Momma costume, you know, in case the family walks in and wonders what a strange man is doing cleaning dishes and cooking dinner.
49: Big Momma pours the doggie a bowl full of tequila to lift its spirits. Dog depression is no laughing matter.
52: Big Momma teaches young girls how to dance like video stars.
56: Big Momma is at a spa with naked women and massages. Her advice to women for long-lasting marriage: put out often. That’s Big Momma for you, teaching our youth to dance salaciously, liquoring up animals, and turning back on the clock on feminism.
60: Big Momma runs on the beach in a 10 parody that no one seeing the movie will ever get. I guess it’s supposed to be funny because she’s fat? I think that’s the punchline for most of the movie.
63: Again, the limitations of an agent undercover in a fat suit (and thong) are revealed when Big Momma tries to chase down a suspect.
73: The dumb kid’s first words are, “Big Momma.” Then, “stakeout” and “investigate” and “hackneyed plot.” I made that last one up but it would have been something.
79: Big Momma enters a club to rescue Hot Topic girl at her plea. Oh, but Chad did not send a message it’s… THE BAD GUYS! And they’re taking her and Big Momma hostage.
80: My first laugh. Hot Topic girl and Big Momma tied in the back of a speeding van and rolling on top of each other with the sharp turns. Big Momma crushes the girl. Hot Topic Girl: “This is not how I imagined my death.” I’ll say.
83: Big Momma on a jet ski battles terrorists. Doesn’t being a large woman also make you a bigger target for bullets? Regardless, she kicks ass and we’re treated to a half-hearted payoff for thong wearing.
89: Have no fear, Big Momma stands in for the girls’ cheerleading dance. They apparently have a matching uniform in Big Momma size. There’s nothing Big Momma can’t do except star in a decent movie.
93: Lawrence brings home his new baby. He also threatens, in voice over, “You never know when Big Momma might be back.” Great, now I have to check under my bed every night.
I’m somewhat surprised that the movie isn’t as bad as I had feared. It’s mostly bland, with cookie-cutter characters, contrived situations, mishandled life lessons, and a dearth of comedy. Martin Lawrence must have been in bad shape to bring the fat suit out of the closet for one more go-round. The film is a dumb comedy that relies heavily on slapstick and Lawrence’s patter but neither ever feels inspired. This is a big bland mess, but it’s somewhat depressing in how cut-and-paste it all is and still designed to boost Lawrence’s career. If it wasn’t obvious before, it should be now — it’s time for Big Momma to pack her bags for good.
Nate?s Grade: D+